Amazing Grace

Convert a church into a livable house? Norm and
Steve wondered aloud if it could be done, but a final look proves that all it takes is

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Grinning like a lottery winner, This Old House producer Bruce Irving spreads his arms to embrace the 1,075-square-foot chapel-cum-living room of the TV show's winter project house in San Francisco. Television producers are professional worriers so, when one smiles, the heart gladdens. "In all the years we've done this," he says, his praise reverberating in the expanse, "this is the coolest, hippest project."



Yet Irving and the rest of the T.O.H. crew did plenty of brow-knitting during the conversion of this turn-of-the-century church into a young couple's residence. The massively scaled design elements that home owner and designer Mark Dvorak specified seemed likely to be too bold for a house. As laborers schlepped in one and a half tons of marble wainscoting, 1/2-pound cabinet hinges, a stove that resembles an ore smelter and Clydesdale-size stable doors for the entry, T.O.H. plumbing and heating contractor Richard Trethewey fretted along with the rest of the crew: "I thought the place would end up looking like Grand Central station."

Now that each item has been plumbed, nailed, glued, bolted or hung, it's clear that Dvorak—working closely with architect Barbara Chambers—brought inspiring vision to this remodeling project. His secret: setting the institutional elements against a minimalist canvas of pristine white walls and streamlined trim. "I had my doubts at first, but it's a fabulous space," says T.O.H. host Steve Thomas. "Now, finally, I get it."

Grinning like a lottery winner, This Old House producer Bruce Irving spreads his arms to embrace the 1,075-square-foot chapel-cum-living room of the TV show's winter project house in San Francisco. Television producers are professional worriers so, when one smiles, the heart gladdens. "In all the years we've done this," he says, his praise reverberating in the expanse, "this is the coolest, hippest project."



Yet Irving and the rest of the T.O.H. crew did plenty of brow-knitting during the conversion of this turn-of-the-century church into a young couple's residence. The massively scaled design elements that home owner and designer Mark Dvorak specified seemed likely to be too bold for a house. As laborers schlepped in one and a half tons of marble wainscoting, 1/2-pound cabinet hinges, a stove that resembles an ore smelter and Clydesdale-size stable doors for the entry, T.O.H. plumbing and heating contractor Richard Trethewey fretted along with the rest of the crew: "I thought the place would end up looking like Grand Central station."

Now that each item has been plumbed, nailed, glued, bolted or hung, it's clear that Dvorak—working closely with architect Barbara Chambers—brought inspiring vision to this remodeling project. His secret: setting the institutional elements against a minimalist canvas of pristine white walls and streamlined trim. "I had my doubts at first, but it's a fabulous space," says T.O.H. host Steve Thomas. "Now, finally, I get it."

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kitchen cabinets, countertops, storage space
Photo by David Peterson
"This is a terribly vertical space," said TOH executive producer Russ Morash when the kitchen renovation began. But the dazzling 20-by-25-foot result shows the wisdom of Dvorak's vision: He tamed the 14-foot ceiling with upper cabinets that unify the room and added open storage and distinctive floor-tile borders.
Dvorak, a store designer for the Gap, drew inspiration from subway platforms, banks, schoolhouses and other public spaces, particularly those built in the opulent 1920s. As his wife, Laurie Ann Bishop, says, "We both love these buildings. When I'm standing in line at a bank, I'm not bored. I always bring my camera when I go out. I'm looking around and taking pictures."



"Ninety-nine percent of our clients are amateurs when it comes to knowing what they want with a design," says the show's executive producer, Russ Morash. "Here, we were working with a professional who makes decisions like this all the time, and it showed from the first day."

"This is really our dream living room," Bishop says of the chapel, where she and Dvorak have arranged their eclectic furniture—gleaned from flea markets in Paris, London, New York City and Los Angeles. The room's cathedral ceilings peak at 24 feet, creating a yawning space that might overwhelm most home owners. But 15 years of scuttling about in cramped urban apartments kindled big-room fantasies in the couple. At the wrap party for the show's final episode, revelers congregated around the blaze in the new fireplace, a shallow-firebox Rumford design with a 5-foot-high opening faced in Italian slate. The standard-sized fireplace screen that someone scrounged for the inaugural fire appeared a "bit out of scale," Dvorak dryly commented. "I'll have something built. A huge sheet of tempered glass on stainless-steel legs, maybe." Problems with scale had to be solved throughout the house. In the kitchen, Dvorak designed custom-built cabinetry that stretches to the lofty ceiling. He and Bishop will reach the top rank via a 7 1/2-foot stained birch library ladder that rolls on chrome-plated rails. The island's countertop is made of marble slabs recycled from a public rest room. "We sanded it really well," he says with a grin. A 4-by-8-foot chalkboard, the home's message center, gives a schoolhouse accent to a wall.

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bathroom cabinets, bathroom floor
Photo by David Peterson
"The idea was to make it institutional yet inviting," says Bishop of the 10-by-10-foot master bathroom. Marble wainscoting and a circa-1940 dental supply cabinet provide commercial ambience, but a stained Douglas fir floor-warmed by radiant-heat tubing-both looks and feels engagingly toasty.
Upstairs, the 10-by-10-foot master bathroom distills the essence of the couple's adventurous tastes. The beige marble wainscoting salvaged from a hallway in San Francisco's Chevron building sets off a pair of century-old, 200-pound janitor's sinks in vitreous china. The bedrooms, by contrast, are clean and spare. "We wanted to keep it simple," Bishop says. Or, says her husband, "Institutional, but not blatant. That's what we're going for."



Throughout the house's 3,400 square feet of living space, tiny but potent halogens spotlight surfaces and fixtures, rather than washing whole rooms with light. "It's a retail-space approach, and it's very dramatic," says Sean O'Connor, who worked with Dvorak on the lighting design. "You get a 'punch' instead of a big, washed-out space." In a Gap store, punch moves turtlenecks. In the house, it creates intimacy in rooms that might otherwise evoke gymnasiums.

Nearly as impressive as Dvorak's design is the structural remediation that supports it. The building—in San Francisco's up-and-coming Eureka Valley neighborhood—presented challenges. The chapel, built just a few months after the city-leveling earthquake of 1906, featured an ungainly two-story addition from the 1940s. As a whole, the structure was "not pretty," Morash says. "It had no yard or garden whatsoever. It had no deck. It was boxy—it sort of loomed out at you."



At the project's start in January, framing contractor J. Gregg spent weeks reinforcing walls and the foundation with galvanized steel straps and bolts to bolster the original chapel building's earthquake resistance. Most worrisome was the union—or lack of one—between the chapel and the addition. "Really, they just sort of leaned against each other," Gregg says. "There was no structural connection at all." It was time for some seismic engineering.

While Gregg and his team implanted $45,000 worth of earthquake-defying steel, general contractor Dan Plummer concentrated on revamping the cavernous interior. He had to. Week after week, he postponed exterior work as El Niño cloudbursts pounded the clapboards. "It was a challenge, at times, keeping the whole crew busy inside."

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kitchen table, countertop, stools
Photo by David Peterson
It's no accident that this end of the kitchen resembles a bistro. Dvorak and Bishop drew inspiration from a favorite New York City eatery, called Balthazar, which evokes a Parisian restaurant's look.
Testifying to the detail of Dvorak's vision, four men armed with orbital palm sanders spent three arduous weeks on the chapel's Douglas fir scissor trusses "just to lighten up the color a little," says Plummer, who worried that sand-blasting the trusses would damage the wood. Simultaneously, workers gutted the addition and framed it into three bedrooms, three baths and a kitchen. "The challenge was to make the bedrooms as large as possible," says architect Barbara Chambers, who worked with Dvorak for three months on various layout schemes. "With the living room so spacious, you didn't want to go upstairs and find tiny, cramped rooms."



In the final month, the pace quickened from speedy to blinding to meet the television show's abbreviated winter production schedule. Jeff Deehan installed vintage bathroom fixtures; Ming Seto, Steve Lo and King Lau ran wire through Douglas fir studs; Darin Collins put up 7,000 pounds of tile, including a style used in the New York City subways.

With crews elbow to elbow, hollering in English, Cantonese, German and Spanish over the construction din, the site became a polyglot version of the Marx Brothers' stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera. "This is a seven-month job that we had to finish in three and a half months, so we had up to 30 guys here at a time," says Plummer. Through it all, Plummer—who met Dvorak when they were both working for Ralph Lauren in New York City—remained affable and unflappable, regaling the crews with bad jokes and Elvis imitations when energy flagged.

For a chance to appear on the television show, many crews worked at lower-than-standard rates—but even so, overtime accumulated. At the wrap party, Richard Trethewey inaugurated the kitchen chalkboard by writing a facetious schedule for Dvorak and Bishop in the coming weeks: "Monday: Pay bills. Tuesday: Pay bills. Wednesday: Pay bills."

Still, the project came in almost exactly on budget. Renovating the church cost about $400,000, and the purchase price of the building was $440,000. Some $85,000 worth of donated goods and services will be taxed as income to Dvorak and Bishop, adding about $30,000 to their outlay. The couple's out-of-pocket total: about $870,000. "That's very close to what we originally estimated," Dvorak says, as cheerfully as a young man with a huge mortgage can. "From the work that I do, I know the stress that comes along with any project like this, so that never threw me." Realizing a personal, rather than corporate, vision had been Dvorak's dream for years—and he enjoyed the endeavor. "It was fun. I really loved the whole thing."?
 
 

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